- Acedia (spiritual sloth): "It's inevitable I'm going to commit serious sin sooner or later so there's no point trying to make spiritual progress."
- Distraction: Unhealthy focus or preoccupation with just "that one sin" such that you ignore other important aspects of your spiritual life (see USC, "Distraction of That One Sin").
- Resentment: Simmering bitterness towards God. "It is unfair of God to prohibit something I am unable to restrain myself from doing. It puts me in an impossible position."
- Blindness: Inability to see the working of grace in ones own life.
- Dulling of Conscience: Having accepted the inevitability of certain sins, one's conscience dulls to them; we get used to that sin or at least to the idea of living with the sin.
- More Time Outside of Grace: The lengths of time we perceive ourselves to be in a state of mortal sin grow longer and longer; the times we are disposed to receive Communion grow shorter and fewer, until they are like small islands of grace in a vast sea of sin.
- Loss of charity: A gradual hardening of heart takes over. We become jaded and angry, impatient with ourselves and others. The very ideas of spiritual progress, grace, etc. seem like jokes.
- Loss of Hope: "At the rate this is going, It'll be a miracle if I make Purgatory."
- Despair: "How can I—or anyone—possibly avoid going to Hell? The vast majority of us are simply doomed."
- Loss of Faith: You no longer perceive the issue as your problem, but as a problem with the faith itself. "The Catholic religion doesn't work. It only gives me stress and anxiety. This system simply can't be the truth. I can no longer assent to this."
Do you recognize this pattern in your life? Even if you are not to the point of despair or loss of faith, does any of this sound familiar? It very well may. I've been here for sure. And so have many Catholics, for whom the pattern above is the reality of their spiritual life. Not all will eventually lose faith, of course; people walk spiral down this vortex to varying degrees. Many of us have been (or are on) this path somewhere.
So what's the way out? The real problem is that "Try harder next time" and like advice doesn't seem to help. Most have been struggling every way we know how to free ourselves from habitual sin for years. Some eventually have victory; many don't. Is there a better way?
We ultimately need to reframe how we look at this problem, and it starts with revisiting the idea of "winning" and "losing" against temptation. When we are tempted, we are thrown into a spiritual battle, a battle we can either win or lose. But when do we win or lose—at what point is a particular spiritual conflict won, or conversely, at what point is it lost? Most of us will answer that the battle is won when we pass on without committing the sin, and that it is lost if we commit the sin we are struggling with. How many of us, after fighting with a temptation, fail to persevere and then think, "Well, I lost that battle", or something similar?
While it's true that victory of temptation is a "win", it is not always true that committing the sin is a "loss", at least in a certain sense. What I mean is this: thinking "I lost that battle" implies that the spiritual battle is over once you have committed the sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens after we sin is just as important. The battle isn't just whether you will sin; it is how you will respond to the victory or failure. If you have victory, will you become complacent and idle? If you are defeated, will you become discouraged, fall into a slump, and go down the slope described above? The battle after the sin is pivotal, as it determines whether you will be solidified in a certain spiritual "trajectory."
Therefore, when you commit a habitual sin, rather than thinking, "I've lost again", or "I blew it", or "There's no point in praying or trying now that I'm already in a state of sin", instead think, "The battle is not over. I am moving into a new stage of the battle. I can still win." Even if you have sinned, your prayers still matter. God is still just as invested in helping you. You don't need to throw in the towel. You don't need to beat yourself up; focusing excessively on your own failures is itself a trap of pride. The battle has not ended; I can have victory at any time if I choose God now in this moment. The moment of grace was not at some place in the past when you were struggling between light and darkness; the moment of grace is now; it is always now. All you have to do is strike now and you win. Every time. The victories will be varied and the journey will be bumpy, but you'll get to where you want to go. Where you are heading is more important than whether the road you are on has potholes. It's not so much whether you hit potholes; it's whether the potholes eventually cause you to give up and turn around.
Maybe this is nothing new. I am certainly not promising any breakthroughs. But I am sharing something that has been extremely helpful to me in my own spiritual life. Realizing that the battle does not end if I sin, that the moment of grace is now, and that as long as I seek God in any given moment I always win have been transformational principles. Perhaps they will be of some help to you as well.
Happy Advent brethren
Related: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (Jan. 2019, USC)